Change Management Series – Chapter 7
Anyone that understands human behaviour, or has ever tried to form a new habit, will appreciate that changing behaviour doesn’t happen overnight. How long does a change management programme last? As we have discussed in other blogs in this series, existing behaviour patterns and habits are difficult to change, because they have become ingrained to such an extent that they occur automatically. Trying to change requires effort and energy, much more than simply doing things automatically. This is one of the key reasons why change management processes exist – to support people through the journey to breaking old habits and embedding new ones.
How long does it take to change a habit?
Think about the last time you tried to change a habit. Maybe you wanted to quit smoking, eat more healthily, take more exercise. How long before the new way of behaving started to feel natural and automatic? Before it didn’t feel like an effort, a chore, a challenge.
A quick Google search provides a variety of estimates about how long this takes. Some authors talk about how quickly we can embed BAD habits (like eating a doughnut with your mid-morning coffee!) and many sources quote somewhere between 21 and 28 days – but there appears to be no solid science behind those figures. It sounds encouraging to think you can change that quickly – but honestly it really doesn’t feel long enough, judging by past experiences!
Other sources and studies suggest an average of 66 days, with a maximum of 254 days observed by one study. Clearly it depends what sort of habit you’re trying to embed (or dislodge).
Does workplace change take 254 days?
I am certainly not suggesting that it will take this long to secure lasting behavioural change in your workplace change management programme. But I am saying that it will probably take longer than you would like. People undoubtedly change at different speeds and for different reasons – so even if most people have started to make a change by the time your programmes goes live – you will likely still have a fair number who haven’t really started.
Consider for a moment how long people in your organisation have been doing the same things in the office. How many months or years have they arrived at the office, made their way to their desk without even thinking about it (maybe even diverted along the way to get their morning coffee and shed their coat). They arrive on autopilot. They don’t have to think about where they are going – possibly they don’t even think about what they’re going to do that day before they’ve settled themselves into their desk and had their beverage.
Developing new workplace habits
It is certainly not impossible for people to learn new habits – to book a desk perhaps (maybe even one in a part of the office they don’t normally sit in); to use a short stay / touchdown space for the first hour of the day, prior to a series of back to back meetings; to sit with people they need to collaborate with for the day; but these ‘different’ behaviours require some thought and some planning / thinking ahead.
However, give most people the opportunity to avoid having to think about all those things, and they probably will slip back into their old ways of behaving at the first opportunity. This is why change programmes need to last a good while and provide plenty of reinforcement.
Typical workplace change management programme length
At AWA, we know that change management starts at the beginning of any workplace transformation assignment. Everything the workplace consultant does, every communication, survey, meeting and workshop throughout the whole journey helps to set expectations and contributes to delivering successful change. We typically quote a 3-month period for the intensive preparation leading up to the “going live” date. This enables us to engage with organisational leaders and change agents, to explain the change, discuss it in depth and help people understand and prepare for the changes. They in turn help their colleagues to take the same journey.
Three months is a sufficient time period for most people to understand and prepare for the change. Sometimes projects become more drawn out – and this isn’t always helpful. People can get fatigued by the journey and run out of steam – they simply want to “just get on with it” but they don’t have all the infrastructure in place in order to work in the new way.
Give people less than three months and things can be okay, depending on the amount of change being undertaken, but things can also get very pressured and people don’t feel adequately prepared to make the change. This is a recipe for a lot of stress and tension within the organisation – people feel forced into the change without enough time to get their heads around the idea and mentally prepare to work differently.
What can we expect by the Go Live date?
In most situations, the intention is to ensure that most people are prepared for the change by the Go Live date. The likelihood is that they won’t have started to work in the new way, but they know what is expected of them and they are prepared to give it a go. In the early days and weeks, they will be trying things out and ideally learning from each other what works for different activities and situations.
It’s difficult to say how long it will take for people to genuinely adapt, change their patterns of behaviour and for the new habits to be automatic. Everyone is different and every situation is different.
Some people won’t have even thought about how to work differently until they arrive in the new workspace (because they simply didn’t engage in the change preparation) and so there is catching up to be done. Many people can’t bring reality to the situation until the physical space and tools (IT) are available.
What is vital is that the new way of working isn’t simply left to look after itself after the Go Live date, it requires continuous workplace management.
How long does a change management programme last? Resign yourself to the fact that change takes time, effort and patience. Don’t expect everyone to behave as you’d wish on day one. Recognise that there is a need to work on the behavioural aspects for a number of months following the Live date as you manage the transition of change. Don’t take your eye off the ball. People will revert to type / old habits quickly if they think nobody is watching. You don’t want to end up being the “working habits police”, so encouraging teams and leaders to take responsibility for encouraging and monitoring progress shifts the onus onto the business – at whose behest the new way of working has hopefully been implemented.
This blog is part of a series of observations about behavioural change management which we hope will provide readers with a good understanding of what is needed to help people change. This is based on 25 years’ experience supporting clients making a change to new ways of working. Next time we will share what we have learned about managing change over the years.